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Trying to Put Katrina Behind Him

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 25, 2007; 12:52 PM

As President Bush today tours a Southern California landscape ravaged by wildfires, he has two primary goals.

One is to comfort the victims and rescue workers, to serve as consoler-in-chief -- one of his best roles.

The other goal is to bask in the aura of competence that has characterized the response to this tragedy -- in stark contrast to the negligent bungling that compounded Hurricane Katrina's toll on New Orleans.

But, despite all the forceful pronouncements from the White House, it's not clear that Bush deserves much, if any, of the credit. And there's no indication that his visit will expiate the Katrina legacy, arguably the second most defining aspect of his presidency.

Here are Bush's remarks as he headed off for his day-trip to California this morning: "It's a sad situation out there in southern California. I fully understand that the people have got a lot of anguish in their hearts and they just need to know a lot of folks care about them," he said. "I will assure the people of California that the Federal Government will be deploying resources, assets, and manpower necessary to help fight these fires."

And, claiming a more pivotal role than he deserves, he announced that "because of the declaration I signed yesterday, there will be help for the people of California."

Spencer S. Hsu writes in today's Washington Post that Bush's tour is intended "to showcase his administration's ability to respond better to natural disasters than it did after Hurricane Katrina two years ago. Yesterday, he pronounced the federal government's actions 'well-coordinated' after a Cabinet meeting to discuss the crisis.

"Federal and state emergency managers say, however, that the two disasters can hardly be compared. Katrina's floods and winds wreaked havoc on a far larger scale. California's local responders lead the nation in training and coordination, while Louisiana's rank near the bottom. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency's responsibilities for battling wildfires are far more limited than its role in dealing with hurricane damage. . . .

"The number of homes destroyed was about 1 percent of the 300,000 made uninhabitable by Katrina, and financial losses were less than 2 percent, based on initial estimates. . . .

"Local officials have choreographed the largest evacuation in Golden State history, with estimates of the people instructed to leave their homes at 351,000. But many began returning yesterday. Katrina prompted the evacuation of 1.1 million people, and 500,000 were still displaced after four months."

While Bush may have "mastered the political response to the wildfires," Hsu writes, federal agencies such as FEMA and DHS "have a much more limited role in responding to wildfires."

Mimi Hall writes in USA Today that "experts said credit for the good response goes to California's officials, emergency workers and residents, most of whom followed instructions to leave their homes for safer ground."

And Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters that "even before he sets foot in California, Bush's visit is stirring controversy. Democratic Lt. Gov. John Garamendi called it a 'public relations' move.

"'I've got some doubt about the value of President Bush coming out here,' he told MSNBC's 'Hardball.' 'I just hope . . . he brings more than he brought to New Orleans.'

"Garamendi also voiced concern that Bush's trip could distract from firefighting efforts in southern California, where more than half million people have been driven from their homes.

"On the East Coast, radio talk show callers had a different complaint. Many pointed out how eager Bush seemed to visit California, where the fire victims in many cases are affluent suburbanites, compared to his earlier reluctance to join New Orleans' mostly poor urban dwellers."

Confronting Iran

Robin Wright writes for The Washington Post: "The Bush administration announced an unprecedented package of unilateral sanctions against Iran today, including the long-awaited designations of its Revolutionary Guard Corps as a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and of the elite Quds Force as a supporter of terrorism.

"The package, announced jointly by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., marks the first time that the United States has tried to isolate or punish another country's military. It is the broadest set of punitive measures imposed on Tehran since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy, and included a call for other countries and firms to stop doing business with three major Iranian banks. . . .

"The Quds Force, the foreign operations branch of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, will be designated separately as a supporter of terrorism under Executive Order 13224, which Bush signed two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to obstruct terrorist funding, U.S. officials said. It authorizes the United States to identify individuals, businesses, charities and extremist groups engaged in terrorism."

(That's the same executive order that Georgetown law professor David Cole, in a Washington Post op-ed yesterday, argued that Bush is using in pursuit of McCarthy-like "guilt by association" tactics.)

Foreign Policy Poll Watch

Alan Fram writes for the Associated Press: "Fewer people think the U.S. is adequately thwarting terrorists, meeting its objectives in Iraq or achieving other goals overseas, according to a poll that shows a deepening skepticism about the country's foreign policy.

"The survey also shows people in the U.S. have flagging hopes that a range of strategies and policies -- from improving intelligence operations to showing more respect for other countries -- can do very much to keep the nation safe.

"'We are reaching a point where the public seems to be questioning not just whether current policies are working, but whether the United States can have an effective foreign policy at all,' said a report accompanying the survey, conducted in the U.S. last month for Public Agenda, a nonpartisan public policy group, and the journal Foreign Affairs."

Public Agenda also reports that when it comes to Iraq, fundamental views have not changed in the last six months. (See my Sept. 19 column, The Public Ain't Buying.)

Today, much as six months ago:

" * Roughly 7 in 10 say the United States should withdraw (48 percent within the next 12 months, 19 percent immediately).

" * More than half (51%) say there's 'not much' the United States can do to create a democratic Iraq or to control the violence there.

" * Nearly half (47 percent) consider Iraq 'mostly a civil war.'

" * Six in 10 do not believe America's safety from terrorism depends on success in Iraq.

" * Half (52 percent) say they don't think the government has told the public the truth about the war."

The Cost of the War

Anne Flaherty writes for the Associated Press: "The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could cost as much as $2.4 trillion through the next decade, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday. The White House brushed off the analysis as 'speculation.'"

The New York Times editorial board writes: "Despite a pretense of fiscal prudence, Mr. Bush keeps throwing money at his war, regardless of the cost in blood, treasure or children's health care. . . .

"Democrats have failed repeatedly to end the Iraq war or to substantially change its course. Now they face another test. Mr. Bush will try to ram his spending request through Congress before Christmas, using the impending holiday to create a false sense of urgency. They must resist that, and try again to use their power of the purse to force the president to begin serious planning for a swift and orderly exit from Iraq. They cannot have it both ways -- opposing the war and enabling Mr. Bush to keep it going full speed and full cost ahead."

Who's Next?

Jonathan Karl writes for ABC News: "Tucked inside the White House's $196 billion emergency funding request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is an item that has some people wondering whether the administration is preparing for military action against Iran.

"The item: $88 million to modify B-2 stealth bombers so they can carry a newly developed 30,000-pound bomb called the massive ordnance penetrator, or, in military-speak, the MOP.

"The MOP is the military's largest conventional bomb, a super 'bunker-buster' capable of destroying hardened targets deep underground. The one-line explanation for the request said it is in response to 'an urgent operational need from theater commanders.'..

"So where would the military use a stealth bomber armed with a 30,000-pound bomb like this? Defense analysts say the most likely target for this bomb would be Iran's flagship nuclear facility in Natanz, which is both heavily fortified and deeply buried."

Cuba Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "In an emotional speech before a group that included the relatives of Cuban political prisoners, President Bush made clear yesterday that the confrontational U.S. policy toward Havana will last through the end of his time in office. But the emerging question is whether it will extend beyond his presidency, with lawmakers and politicians in both parties raising questions about the wisdom of the long-standing U.S. approach."

Ginger Thompson of the New York Times takes note of the audience reaction: "In front of him was an audience almost evenly divided between Latin American diplomats to his left and Cuban exiles to his right."

Said Bush: "'The socialist paradise is a tropical gulag. The quest for justice that once inspired the Cuban people has now become a grab for power. And as with all totalitarian systems, Cuba's regime no doubt has other horrors still unknown to the rest of the world.'

"'Once revealed,' Mr. Bush added, 'they will shock the conscience of humanity.'

"The right side of the room leaped to ovation. The left side stayed in its seats, and the world was reminded that nearly five decades after the rise of a Communist government in Cuba, American policy toward the island continued to be driven by domestic interests."

Frances Robles and Pablo Bachelet write in the Miami Herald: "Some diplomats were disappointed at Bush's speech.

"'When you convoke the foreign diplomatic corps, you expect it's going to be something new, a new initiative. It was really disappointing,' said one Western diplomat who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. 'It was really nothing.'"

Andres Oppenheimer writes in his Miami Herald column that U.S. programs and commissions for Cuba's transition "smack of U.S. interventionism. . . .

"Bush deserves praise for having spoken out in support of fundamental freedoms in Cuba when much of the rest of the world is scandalously looking the other way. But he plays into Castro's hands when he announces U.S. plans for Cuba's transition."

Bush's Worst Nightmare

Jonathan Weisman profiles Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House oversight committee, on the front page of The Washington Post this morning.

Waxman "has become the Bush administration's worst nightmare: a Democrat in the majority with subpoena power and the inclination to overturn rocks. But in Waxman the White House also faces an indefatigable capital veteran -- with a staff renowned for its depth and experience -- who has been waiting for this for 14 years.

"These days, the 16-term congressman is always ready with a hearing, a fresh crop of internal administration e-mails or a new explosive report. And he has more than two dozen investigations underway, on such issues as the politicization of the entire federal government, formaldehyde in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, global warming, and safety concerns about the diabetes drug Avandia.

"'We have to let people know they have someone watching them after six years with no oversight at all,' said Waxman, 68. 'And we've got a lot of low-hanging fruit to pick.'"

Here's an excellent, hotlinked list of Waxman's greatest hits -- so far.

An SCHIP Off the Old Block

Tony Pugh writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Ignoring an eleventh-hour overture from the White House, Democratic leaders in House of Representatives late Wednesday crafted an amended bill to expand health coverage for low-income children and scheduled a vote on the measure, hoping to garner enough GOP support to overcome another presidential veto."

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post the the new version of the bill will still call for a $35 billion expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. But it also "will underscore that illegal immigrants will not have access to the expanded program. It will ease adults off the program in one year, rather than the two in the vetoed version. And it establishes a firmer eligibility cap at 300 percent of the federal poverty line, just more than $60,000 for a family of four.

"The move took Republican leaders by surprise. Bush administration officials yesterday voiced conciliation, suggesting the president could accept legislation that would expand the program by about $20 billion over five years, far bigger than the $5 billion expansion that Bush initially proposed. At the same time, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt has been meeting with House and Senate Republicans, urging them to hold the line against an even larger bill. And Bush continues to oppose the tobacco tax increase that Democrats want to fund the measure."

Dashed Dream

Julia Preston writes in the New York Times: "A bill to grant legal status to illegal immigrants who are high school graduates was defeated Wednesday in a test vote in the Senate, significantly dimming the prospects for any major immigration legislation this year.

"By a vote of 52 to 44, the bill failed to garner the 60 votes needed to proceed to a debate on the Senate floor. The bill, sponsored by Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, would have given provisional legal status to illegal immigrant students who completed high school if they either attended college or served in the military for two years....

"Mr. Durbin's measure, called the Dream Act by its supporters, was tailored to benefit young, successful students whose immigration status was the result of decisions by their parents to come to the United States illegally, in many cases when the children were small."

Nicole Gaouette and Johanna Neuman write in the Los Angeles Times: "Opponents called the bill a form of amnesty and argued that it would create incentives for illegal immigrants to cross the border with their children. But Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who supported the measure, said that 'to turn on these children and treat them as criminals is an indication of the level of emotion and, in some cases, bigotry and hatred that is involved in this debate.'"

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "It was always a long shot for supporters of an immigration measure known as the Dream Act to round up the 60 votes needed to advance the bill in the Senate. But it didn't help matters yesterday when the Bush administration, having supported a comprehensive immigration reform bill containing essentially the same provision, came out against the bill on the morning of the vote. This helped quash the hopes of tens of thousands of promising young people who find themselves, through no fault of their own, in this country illegally. The failure of the Dream Act -- it got just 52 votes -- leaves them no realistic hope of achieving legal status."

Censorship Watch

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "Bush administration officials acknowledged yesterday that they heavily edited testimony on global warming, delivered to Congress on Tuesday by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after the president's top science adviser and other officials questioned its scientific basis.

"Senate Democrats say they want to investigate the circumstances involved in the editing of CDC Director Julie L. Gerberding's written testimony to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on 'climate change and public health.' Gerberding testimony shrank from 12 pages to six after it was reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget. . . .

"White House officials eliminated several successive pages of Gerberding's testimony, beginning with a section in which she planned to say that many organizations are working to address climate change but that, 'despite this extensive activity, the public health effects of climate change remain largely unaddressed,' and that the 'CDC considers climate change a serious public concern.'"

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino defended the cuts, citing a report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "As I understand it, in the draft there was broad characterizations about climate change science that didn't align with the IPCC," she told reporters.

But, writes Eilperin: "'That's nonsense,' said University of Wisconsin at Madison public health professor Jonathan Patz, who served as an IPCC lead author for its 2007, 2001 and 1995 reports. 'Dr. Gerberding's testimony was scientifically accurate and absolutely in line with the findings of the IPCC.'"

And Jay Bookman writes in his Atlanta Journal-Constitution opinion column: "On every point, Gerberding's testimony jibes with the IPCC report. It was censored not because it contradicted accepted science, but because it reflected that science. It's a heckuva way to run a country. . . .

"[A]ltering Gerberding's testimony does not alter the reality she was trying to describe. If global warming poses health risks to the American people, as she believes, those risks will continue even if expert warnings are muted or even silenced. You can't change reality by refusing to acknowledge it. We've tried that; it doesn't work."

It's Global Warmth, Not Global Warming

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News Service that Perino "wants everyone to know about the upside of global warming. There are, she said today, health benefits.

"'Look, this is an issue where I'm sure lots of people would love to ridicule me when I say this, but it is true that many people die from cold-related deaths every winter,' she said. 'And there are studies that say that climate change in certain areas of the world would help those individuals.'"

Code Pink Congress

And, via blogger Josh Marshall, here is Perino expressing her view that "it seems that increasingly Congress is being run by Code Pink."

Whither Mukasey?

James Oliphant blogs for the Tribune Washington bureau about new written questions posed to attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

"Specter is primarily concerned with Mukasey's answers concerning the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires a warrant for secret wiretaps. Mukasey indicated he believed that the president may have powers beyond the scope of the act to put in place an alternative program for eavesdropping, perhaps similar to the now defunct National Security Agency effort that sparked turmoil when it was revealed in 2005.

"'If you believe the President can act outside the law,' Specter wrote, 'how do you square that belief with your statement at the hearing that 'The President doesn't stand above the law[?]' How do you deal with the public concern that the rule of law is supreme and the President at times appears to put himself above the law?'"

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Michael B. Mukasey, who once seemed headed to confirmation as attorney general by acclamation, may now be facing a narrower and more contentious vote. That's the price the retired federal judge from New York will have to pay unless he reconsiders some evasive testimony about torture."

False Confessions Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post about Abdallah Higazy, an Egyptian student whose civil lawsuit against the FBI was reinstated this week.

"The fresh details about his interrogation in December 2001 illustrate how an innocent man can be persuaded to confess to a crime that he did not commit, and the lengths to which the FBI was willing to go in its terrorism-related investigations after the Sept. 11 attacks."

FISA Watch

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "A White House campaign to win quick passage of a major surveillance bill has hit a new snag in recent days: four Democratic presidential candidates have signaled their intention to oppose the measure as it is currently written."

Bush Wins a Big One

David Stout writes in the New York Times: "The Senate on Wednesday confirmed President Bush's choice for the federal appeals court that handles cases from Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, despite complaints from civil rights organizations and many Democrats that he was not committed to racial equality.

"The nominee, Leslie H. Southwick, formerly a state appellate judge in Mississippi, won confirmation on a vote of 59 to 38. . . .

"In return for [the Senate leadership]'s lack of an all-out effort against confirmation, Roll Call said, Republicans will help Democrats in negotiations with the White House over spending measures."

One Columnist's Opinion

Rosa Brooks writes in her Los Angeles Times opinion column: "George W. Bush and Dick Cheney shouldn't be treated like criminals who deserve punishment. They should be treated like psychotics who need treatment.

"Because they've clearly gone mad. Exhibit A: We're in the middle of a disastrous war in Iraq, the military and political situation in Afghanistan is steadily worsening, and the administration's interrogation and detention tactics have inflamed anti-Americanism and fueled extremist movements around the globe. Sane people, confronting such a situation, do their best to tamp down tensions, rebuild shattered alliances, find common ground with hostile parties and give our military a little breathing space. But crazy people? They look around and decide it's a great time to start another war."

Brooks's goal: "Get Bush and Cheney committed to an appropriate inpatient facility, where they can get the treatment they so desperately need."

Cartoon Watch

Pat Oliphant on the Bush-Cheney solution for children's health insurance; Steve Sack on the next generation's burden; John Sherffius on the drums of war; Rex Babin on feeding the war machine; Dwane Powell on scary Halloween costumes.

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